LGBT representation in popular media has historically been pretty unimpressive. In recent years, however, the classic gay best friend character and his corresponding lesbian man-hating trope have been increasingly replaced with LGBT characters that are refreshingly three-dimensional. From romance to drama and live-action to cartoon, the world of LGBT role models on screen is now vast and well-populated.
Sophia Burset is an incarcerated trans woman portrayed by transgender activist Laverne Cox. Trans representation in popular media has always been problematic, from issues of placing trans people in victim roles to painting them as villains, along with pervasive problematic language. The depth of Sophia Burset’s character and backstory helps elevate her to classify as positive representation.
Hayden Byerly and Gavin Macintosh were both 13 when their characters kissed for the first time, sparking controversy over whether the directors were using the actors’ youth to sensationalize their storyline. Regardless of disagreements over the network’s intentions, the scene the two young actors share is simple and sweet. They have undoubtedly become role models for LGBT tweens across America.
"Booksmart" is a breath of fresh air in many ways, and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is at the top of that list. Her spunky, weird portrayal of life as a graduating senior is at times painfully real, made more powerful by the fact that lesbians in pop media are usually reduced to roles that are either purely sexualized or man-hating. Amy is neither of those things: she just plays an awkward teenage girl, and she's great at it.
Blanca, portrayed by Mj Rodriguez, is a trans drag queen who is revealed to be HIV positive in the first episode of this explosive and flashy show. Blanca then chooses to leave the House of Abundance to form her own home for those in need, called the House of Evangelista, and compete against her former house in the ballroom. Rodriguez was well cast: her Blanca is bold, brash and brilliant.
In Netflix’s series adaptation of "Dear White People," DeRon Horton plays Lionel Higgins, a nerdy reporter for the university newspaper. He is originally shy about his sexuality due to a lack of acceptance from homophobic black peers in the past, but over the course of the show, he is said to develop a "backbone" and his pride eventually shines through.
RuPaul Andre Charles has been a queer icon for well over a decade. His drag persona is incredibly influential — he has single-handedly coined so many expressions that there is a whole dictionary devoted to explaining his slang. "RuPaul’s Drag Race" is a platform for drag queens to gain money and fame (or notoriety), and with RuPaul at the helm, it proves time and again to be an eleganza extravaganza.
The heartbreaking true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered in 1993, is translated onto the screen in "Boys Don't Cry" with actress Leslie Swank in the lead role. Swank went on to win both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best actress. Her performance is wrenching and tragic, and well worth a watch.
Oberyn (Pedro Pascal)’s enormous sexual appetite for both men and women is plainly apparent throughout this epic series. He is romantically linked to Ellaria, but that never stopped this impulsive character from seizing the day and having a little fun with some squires on the side.
Titus Andromedon, played by Tituss Burgess, has led a comically tumultuous life — before he enters "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" as Kimmy's new roommate, he has already fled a heterosexual marriage and botched his "Lion King" audition 20 times. His hit single “Peeno Noir” (named in reference to black penises) is iconic enough to earn him a spot on this list on its merits alone.
"Are You the One?" was a heterosexual dating show for seven years, where 10 men and 10 women headed to an island to figure out who had been determined their “perfect match” by “scientific” matchmakers. But that got boring. For season eight, they’ve switched things up; every single cast member on the show is now sexually fluid, and the show is 10 times better for it. Now, in addition to the classic reality TV show drama, the show is host to constant discussion of sexual politics and some really groundbreaking representation.
"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" has cultivated a true gem in Darryl Whitefeather, played by the charming Pete Gardner. His solo performance on the song “Gettin’ Bi” is not only clever and sweet but also cemented him as a bisexual treasure.
Although Darren Criss plays a murderous psychopath in "The Assassination of Gianni Versace," through his nuanced acting and the series’ gorgeous visual storytelling, Andrew Cunanan becomes a sympathetic character. The series does not fall into the trap of blaming Cunanan’s sexuality for his crimes, as many narratives of the past might have; instead, it focuses on his early life and his personal relationships. In the end, we are left shaking our heads at both the life Cunanan was forced to lead and the atrocities he committed.
Jake Gyllenhal and Heath Ledger play Jack and Ennis, two Wyoming men who develop a sexual and romantic relationship when assigned to herd sheep through the mountains together. The film follows these two over the next few decades, as both marry women despite their feelings for one another. It’s a story about two men who love one another very much, despite societal pressures pushing them apart — and it’s very touching.
Glee opened conversations about many important topics — from teen drinking to fat-shaming — but its most compelling storylines during its six-year run focused on two LGBT characters in the show: Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Santana (Naya Rivera). Kurt’s first kiss, robbed from him by closeted school bully Karofsky, and Santana’s difficult coming out to her grandmother exposed audiences across America to hatefulness; but the relationships both characters found (with Darren Criss’ Blaine and Heather Morris’ Brittney, respectively) are entirely redeeming of this treatment.
Korra is a badass. She can waterbend, firebend, earthbend AND sustain an open lesbian relationship on children’s television — none of which is an easy feat. As she works to master the fourth element, air, she develops a romantic relationship with Asami Sako, another member of her group of element-bending peers.
Harvey Milk was a gay activist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, credited with being the first openly gay elected politician in California and portrayed here by Sean Penn. The movie follows the last few years of Milk’s life, wherein he is elected and assassinated. Although the story ends in tragedy, the uplifting moments paving the path to his death hearken back to the gay liberation movement itself, which endured countless steps backward on its course toward progress.
"BoJack" is television’s only animated horse-person, and Todd Chavez is his slacker best friend. Voiced by Aaron Paul, this character came out as asexual in the season three finale, and season five sees him exploring this identity. The ace community is still almost never represented on screen. Todd Chavez might be one of only a few role models in the ace community, but he actually ends up being an adequate (if quotidian) hero.
This artsy film centers around Ned (Finn O’Shea) and Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), roommates at an all male boarding school in Ireland. The film is notable for its choice to not force the boys into a romantic relationship, despite their common gay identity and their isolation in a not-quite-accepting community. It makes the oft-ignored point that gay men can just be buds without falling into the complications of romance.
"Moonlight," an ethereal coming-of-age narrative, traces Chiron's (Ashton Sanders journey through a dangerous world while exploring his sexuality. By turns emotional and thought-provoking, this film puts a homosexual man of color in the spotlight in a truly powerful and inspiring way.
Andre Braugher brings the 99th precinct’s Captain Ray Holt to life in "Brooklyn 99." He is a gay, black man in a position of power, and while he may not crack jokes like the rest of the officers at the precinct — he’s the resident straight man, funnily enough — he is highly respected and admired by the rest of the force. Plus, he provides ample laughs to the audience with his never-changing expression.
This film follows the glamorously rich Carol (Cate Blanchett) and a store clerk she meets named Theresa as they fall out of love with their respective partners and in love with one another. With a custody battle over Carol’s daughter Rindy on the line, the relationship is fraught with tension and fear of discovery.
Bizarrely, this sex-crazed tween cartoon packs a punch when it comes to promoting bisexual visibility. He discovers his sexuality while having sex with musty old motel pillows, which he hallucinates are multi-gendered and sentient. Strange as it is, Jay’s naiveté comes off as endearing, and his struggles with his bisexuality come off as relatable (despite the whole pillow-sex part).
Jeffry Tambor plays Maura Pfefferman on this television series about a parent of three who transitions to be a woman after retirement. The genius and punny title says a lot about what you should expect from the show itself — it’s a clever, funny, and poignant look into a family dealing with the repercussions of Maura’s decision to become herself. Note: In the aftermath of sexual misconduct allegations, Tambor was fired from his role as Maura. "Transparent" plans on killing off the character in the fifth season.
This lovable duo has been gracing audiences with their sweet onscreen chemistry for 10 years now. Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) portray the mundanities of living in LA with a daughter, Lily. This simple depiction of a gay couple that has overcome issues of coming out and passed peaceably into middle age is a positive LGBT role model because it normalizes life with an identity that many still considered strange when "Modern Family" premiered.
"Blue is the Warmest Colour" is a French romance starring Adèle Exarchopoulos, who plays a character named Adèle. The story begins with Adèle discovering her attraction to women at the age of 15 and traces the entirety of her relationship with an artist named Emma, which continues well into adulthood. The performances given by both of these young actresses are stupendous.
Although the television and film industries still have a lot of work to do on their depiction of LGBT characters, the tide has begun to turn. The list of positive LGBT role models in popular media today is much longer than it was only five years ago, and this uptick in representation is bound to continue skyrocketing. No longer must the LGBT community be tokenized in films and TV; no longer must the world be satisfied with sassy gay sidekicks who never get a romantic plot of their own because that keeps them palatable. Instead, a richer and more diverse picture of LGBT life has begun to filter into the mainstream. And luckily, it looks as though it's here to stay.